In a previous post I advanced what I called a receptacle hypothesis of consciousness, the idea that our minds may come from some unknown external source, rather than being purely the product of our brains. I did not claim that such a hypothesis is a likelihood, but I suggested it as an interesting alternate hypothesis. I suggested only one thing that might be evidence tending to support such a hypothesis: the phenomenon of near-death experiences. But there may be other mental phenomena that lend support to this hypothesis or similar alternate ideas about human consciousness. Let's take a look at such phenomena.
I'll start by mentioning two
or three phenomena that are only weakly supportive of the receptacle
hypothesis of mind, and then move up to some phenomena that may
support this hypothesis more strongly.
Savants (once called “idiot
savants,” although that seems an inappropriate term) are
individuals who have some mental disability but also have some
extraordinary mental talents. Many people are familiar with savants
from the film Rain Man starring
Dustin Hoffman, based on an actual savant. An example of a
savant is Daniel Tammet, who has been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.
He holds the European record for reciting Pi from memory, to 22,514
digits. Supposedly he learned the Icelandic language in only ten
Another example of a savant
is the late Kim Peek,
who supposedly could accurately recall the details of 12,000 books he
had read, despite having an IQ of only 87. Like several savants, he
had the ability to instantly calculate the day of the week on which
any person he met was born.
Hyperthymesia is the rare
ability of a person to remember almost everything that has ever
happened to him. 25 cases have been documented in peer-reviewed journals.
Hyperthymesia was the focus of a 60 Minutes segment that interviewed
a group of people with this ability, including actress Marilu Henner.
Henner says she can remember almost every day of her life since she was
about 11 years old. In June 2012 a journal reported the case of a
man identified merely as HK. The man could clearly recall every day
of his life since he was about 11. The man underwent a brain scan,
which showed that his brain was smaller
Another person with
hyperthymesia is Jill Price, who can recall details from every day in her life since
she was 14. Her brain was scanned, and found to be normal.
These cases of hyperthymesia and savants may be hard to fit in with the hypothesis that the human mind is entirely produced by the brain, as do other examples of extraordinary mental abilities.
Brain Surgery Anomaly
Michael S. Gazzaniga is the
director of the SAGE Center of the Study of Mind at the University of
California. In his book Who's In Charge? Free Will and the Science
of the Brain, he says this about a particular type of split-brain
In this procedure, the
large tract of nerves that connects the two hemispheres, the corpus
callosum, is severed to prevent the spread of electrical impulses.
Their isolated left brain, however, which receives no input from the
right hemisphere (in essence losing half its size) remains just as
intelligent as a whole brain. If brain quantity is so important, you
would think there would be an effect on problem solving and
hypothesizing when half the brain is lost, but there is not.
This may be hard to explain
under the idea that the mind is entirely the product of the brain,
but it is no difficulty under the hypothesis that the brain is a mere
receptacle for consciousness.
ESP or extrasensory
perception is the alleged ability of some people to obtain
Information in some paranormal way outside of the senses. Recently
we saw headlines such as “ESP Debunked in New Psychology Study.”
But the study in question did not at all do that – the study didn't
even mention ESP, nor did it mention a sixth sense.
The most compelling evidence for ESP comes from what are called
A ganzfeld experiment is one in which a test for extra-sensory
perception is combined with sensory deprivation achieved through
methods such as cutting a ping-pong ball in half and taping it over
someone's eyes, and having someone wear an earphone transmitting
white noise. In these ESP experiments, the expected chance hit rate
(matching of a user's selection and a random target) is 25%. But as wikipedia reports here, “In 2010, Lance Storm, Patrizio Tressoldi,
and Lorenzo Di Risio analyzed 29 ganzfeld studies from 1997 to 2008.
Of the 1,498 trials, 483 produced hits, corresponding to a hit rate
of 32.2%.” That success rate of 32.2% is hugely above the expected
by-chance success rate of 25%. The review article can be found here.
The probability of such a hit rate occurring by chance is incredibly
low. The Law of Large Numbers dictates that whenever you do a huge
number of trials, there is only a very low chance of exceeding the
result expected by chance.
If ESP exists, it is very
hard to fit in with the idea that our consciousness is entirely
produced by our brains.
The Placebo Effect
A placebo is typically a
sugar pill that a doctor gives to a patient, merely in the hopes that
the patient's belief that he is getting an effective treatment will
actually do some good. The placebo effect is the astonishing degree
to which placebos are actually effective in reducing symptoms. This
study indicates that half of a drug's effectiveness may be due to the
This study indicates that when patients are given a placebo pill
labeled as a drug, it does just as well in alleviating migraine
headaches as when patients are given an actual drug labeled as a
placebo. The placebo seems to work not just for problems involving the brain,
but also other parts of the body. Wikipedia says, “A meta-study
of 31 placebo-controlled trials of the gastric
acid secretion inhibitor drug cimetidine
in the treatment of gastric or duodenal ulcers found that placebo
treatments, in many cases, were as effective as active drugs.”
The placebo effect is very
difficult to account for under the theory that your mind is entirely
produced by your brain. But imagine if your whole body is a
receptacle for your consciousness, which somehow arose from some
unknown distant source. In that case something like the placebo
effect would not be so surprising.
The Global Consciousness
The Global Consciousness Project is a long-running study to see whether random number
generators behave differently during significant world events. The
project uses random number generators scattered all over the world,
and has operated for more than 15 years. The web site for the project
indicates that overall the project has produced results with a probability of less
than one in a million, indicating a significant deviation from the
results expected by chance. It is as if somehow the human mind has
an influence on computerized mechanical devices. Such an effect is
hard to account for under the idea that your mind is entirely the
product of your brain, but may be easier to explain under the
hypothesis that your consciousness has some mysterious distant
Near Death Experiences
The site here www.nderf.org gives over 1800 accounts of near death experiences, which have for
several decades been the subject of serious investigation by
researchers. But weren't near-death experiences debunked by some
recent scientific study? No, the study involved rats, not humans, and
merely showed that for 30 seconds at the time of death they had a
particular type of brain wave. The conclusion that some people drew
from this study (“Rats show signs of higher consciousness at
death”) was quite strained, considering that we haven't the
slightest idea how these rats thought or felt when they were dying, and
even the very idea of talking about consciousness in rats may be
rather laughable. In any case, I doubt anyone reading some of the
long, involved accounts at the site above would think that most of
the people were describing something that occurred in 30 seconds of
In quite a few near death experiences, people report floating above their bodies, an observation which seems to be completely incompatible with the idea that the mind is produced solely by the brain.
Alleged Ghost Sightings
People have reported seeing
ghosts throughout human history. Many people would like to classify
ghosts as a superstition of the past, like the belief in witches. The
problem is that people keep reporting that they have seen ghosts. For
example, for 5 years on the television show Celebrity Ghost Stories
numerous celebrities have gone on camera to report seeing ghosts (a list of these celebrities is found here).
Reincarnation is the
hypothesis that one person can be born with the soul or consciousness
of another person who previously died. If all we had as evidence for
reincarnation were uncorroborated stories of past-lives told during
hypnotic regression, such evidence could easily be dismissed as mere
fantasies produced during an abnormal mental condition. However, the
evidence is a lot more substantial. After decades of research,
Professor Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia published a
2268-page two volume work Reincarnation
and Biology, in which
he described in meticulous detail thousands of cases of alleged
reincarnation, involving small children who claimed to have had a
previous life. According to this link in a Scientific American blog,
225 case reports of children who remembered previous lives and who
had physical anomalies that matched those previous lives, details
that could in some cases be confirmed by the dead person’s autopsy
record and photos.” Stevenson's work has been carried on by Jim
Tucker, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia who has recently
published a book
Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children who Remember Past
Lives. See this link
for an interview.
Again we have a case of an
alleged phenomena that is quite inconsistent with the idea that our
consciousness is solely produced by the brain, but which is quite
compatible with the receptacle hypothesis of consciousness.
I have cited here quite a few
type of phenomena that may tend to support the theory I previously
discussed, that our brains or bodies may be a mere receptacle of our
minds, and that our minds may have arisen elsewhere, from some
unknown external source outside of our bodies. The various phenomena
discussed here may all tend to lend credibility to such a hypothesis. All
of these phenomena are hard to explain under the alternate
hypothesis, that the mind is produced solely by the brain. I am not claiming that all of these phenomena are necessarily what they appear to be; I am merely pointing out that they may tend to conflict with the conventional theory that our minds are produced solely by brain activity.
None of this proves that this
receptacle hypothesis of consciousness is true, but at least these
items may indicate that such a theory should be given serious
No doubt some will denounce
some of these items I have cited as things that are too “weird”
or far-out. But I think it is remarkable that a scientist who might
make such a dismissal might then later proceed to spend lots of time
writing about multiverses, parallel universes, string theory, time
travel, distant extraterrestrial civilizations, and space-time
wormholes – all of which are things just as strange (or stranger)
than any of the items I have mentioned here.
In fact, there seems to be a
very strange double standard in the minds of many a modern scientist.
You might describe this double standard like this:
It is acceptable and
encouraged to discuss multiverses, parallel universes, distant
extraterrestrial civilizations, time travel, string theory, and
space-time wormholes, things for which there is no observational
evidence. But it is forbidden to discuss things like ESP, ghosts,
and near-death experiences, which seem to be supported by many
Such an ass-backwards
principle makes no sense at all.
Postscript: for a discussion of other strange phenomena that may support an alternate hypothesis of consciousness, see this post. Among the cases discussed are two astonishing cases of people who managed to function well despite having hardly any brain tissue.
Post-postscript: For other fascinating cases of savants, see this link.